The following interview I had with creature puppeteer Tom Wilton was done for the Dutch Star Wars community StarWarsAwakens.nl and was originally published on that site in May 2016.
Hello Mr. Wilton, great you want to do an interview for our
website! I’d like to start at the very beginning: how did you start your
career in movies?
Before becoming a creature puppeteer I was an actor. I’ve had two
careers in a way. I graduated from drama school in London in 2005 and
for 5 years worked as an actor in the theatre. In 2010 I was cast in the
West End production of the Royal National Theatre’s Warhorse. But at that point I was still primarily an actor. During that first year on Warhorse
and along side playing a part and understudying others I learnt and
performed many of the background puppetry that supported the main horse
puppets. I really enjoyed the puppetry and when an opportunity to play
the front legs of Joey the horse came up I took it. That was the
beginning of my second career as a creature puppeteer and what led me to
work in film. The Force Awakens was the first film I properly worked on.
How did you get cast this movie?
I was very lucky. Derek Arnold, who I worked with on Warhorse and Liam Cook who I worked with on Walking With Dinosaurs
were both already attached to the project. As I understand it, the
puppetry coordinator Brian Herring (who went on to puppeteer BB8) needed
another Creature Puppeteer for a two person creature they were working
on. My name came up and I was asked to come in. That creature would go
on to become the Luggabeast.
You were dressed as the character Sarco Plank photographed
for the famous Vanity Fair shoot. What was it like being in such a huge
magazine but not being allowed to tell anyone it’s you.
To be completely honest with you by the time that the magazine came
out I’d actually forgotten that I’d been dressed as Sarco Plank! A
friend who was dressed as the creature standing next to Sarco Plank sent
me a message and it jogged my memory. Don’t get me wrong, being
involved in a photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz isn’t something you
normally forget but Derek (Arnold) and I were jumping in and out of new
creatures on such a regular basis that sometimes it was hard to remember
what we’d done. We were told that we were the only two performers to be
used in all of the sequences that the CFX team did for the film.
In the movie you didn’t play Sarco Plank. What was the reason for this?
Sarco Plank is such a cool character. There was talk that I might
play him before we left for Abu Dhabi. But when we got there I was busy
doing something else. I believe one of the supporting artists from a
Dubai agency played him in the film. I’d love to see Sarco Plank back in
Episode VIII. It would be really cool if he was the ‘Boba Fett’ for this new trilogy.
In The Force Awakens you play the big yellow droid B-U4D (Buford). Can you share your experiences regarding playing him?
I’m really fond of Buford! There is something about how slow and
retro he is that really endears him to me. That part of the film was
also a joy to work on. The interior set for the rebels was breathtaking
and the first time I saw Carrie Fisher and Anthony Daniels. Anthony
Daniels was very generous. Natalie Cuzner
(PZ-4CO) and I were the new droids on the block and Anthony Daniels
made time to offer his advice on both our performances. I remember
thinking at the time ‘this is crazy’; C-3PO is giving me advice on how
to be a droid!
Along with Derek Arnold you puppeteered the Luggabeast. Since you had been in the play Warhorse before I bet your experience came in quite handy?
Neal Scanlan gave an interview recently where he revealed that JJ Abrams had seen Warhorse and wanted to do something similar for The Force Awakens. I feel very privileged that out of the large pool of Warhorse
puppeteers Derek and I were ended up being the guys to bring the
Luggabeast to life. In some ways we were very prepared for the
Luggabeast. We’d worked in that configuration before using a puppet and
human rider on top. But in other ways the experience would be the most
challenging feat we’d ever attempted. Nothing can prepare you for the
searing heat of the desert or the practical implications of trying to
walk a puppet like that down a sand dune. I trained very hard in the run
up to flying out to Abu Dhabi to get my fitness up. I was dead lifting
and squatting twice my own body weight and doing yoga in a sauna to
replicate the conditions that we would be working in. But as soon as we
got out there and into the puppet I felt as weak as a kitten. It’s scary
what that kind of heat and dehydration can do to you physically. But
when you are literally carrying the weight of a blockbuster film on your
shoulders you have to dig deep. It was such a special project and JJ
Abrams was such an inspirational leader that we all wanted to do the
best we could. Luckily we (Derek and I) were in it together and had the
fantastic CFX crew around us to rush in between takes and hold the
weight up, give us water and shout encouragement. They were amazing and
relentless in their support and professionalism.
I think it’s great they did the Luggabeast as a practical
effect instead of CGI. What makes your (and Derek’s) performance better
than any CGI effect?
I think it’s important to remember that when you watch the final edit
of that scene it’s a happy marriage between both practical and CGI. I
recently wrapped on a film where we worked very closely with the Visual
Effects department and I have a lot of respect for what they do. In
regards to the Luggabeast someone in post production spent a long time
painting out mine and Derek’s legs! I think both Practical and CGI have
merits but when they come together we get something magical like the
I always enjoy hearing good stories of funny, weird or remarkable things that happened on the set. Can you share yours?
The only conversation I had with JJ Abrams on the film was about
carpet! When we were preparing for the Luggabeast back at Pinewood
Studios we had always been told that we would never have to walk the
puppet on sand, there would always be something under our feet like
wooden boards or carpet. First day on set with the Luggabeast, Derek and
I climb in and we keep saying to each other “Wow that sand dune looks
steep but it’s ok because they’ll lay down some boards so we’ll be
fine”. All of a sudden we hear “ACTION!” and we’re off, staggering down
the side of this sand dune carrying Kiran Shah on our backs. At one
point I really thought we were going to fall over. I kept thinking ‘I
hope Kiran will be alright!’ Kiran admitted after that at one point he
thought we were going over too and he’d prepped himself to do a stunt
fall if necessary. As soon as I could I jumped out and rushed over to
one of the assistant directors to try and explain that we really needed
something sturdy under our feet. The assistant director stepped to the
side and suddenly I found myself face to face with JJ Abrams! I was no
doubt very hot and agitated but JJ was really kind and said “Yeah sure
whatever you need”. Looking back I can’t believe that I asked JJ Abrams
for carpet but sure enough the next thing we knew they’d put down carpet
under the sand and we got through the take which is the most important
Were you a Star Wars fan before you got cast?
I was a huge fan as a child. I still have a load of my original Kenner action figures. Now my son plays with them!
Do you remember the first time you saw Star Wars?
I don’t remember the first time I saw Star Wars but as children my
brother and I used to have these nights my mother called ‘Movie Marathon
Nights’ where we would watch all three of the original films back to
back. I wish I could step back in time and say to my younger self ‘One
day you’ll be standing on the set of Star Wars under the Millennium
Falcon next to Han Solo!’
How do you look back on the whole Star Wars experience?
It was undoubtedly the most incredible thing to be a part of. The
Creature Effects team was the most hard working and talented group of
people I’ve ever had the privilege of working with and I learnt an
Rogue One and Episode VIII are coming up…will we see you in one of these movies?
You’ll just have to wait and see when the films come out but in the
meantime you can keep up to date with the projects I’m involved in by
subscribing to my YouTube channel or following me on twitter. Thanks!
I will! Thank you for your time!